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3 tips for selling your first article

Posted on December 6, 2016 at 6:00 am

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by Kelly Burgess

As a long-time writer and editor, the most frequent question I get from people is, “How can I sell what I’m writing?”

Becoming a writer is one thing (hint: it takes passion, discipline and dedication). Selling your work is quite another.

I’m not going to lie: in some ways, it’s harder than ever to break into the freelance writing world. The newspapers and magazines that were such a rich source of employment back when I started writing have shrunk significantly as a market for aspiring writers. Still, while the internet may have killed many of those outlets, it’s created many others.

Regardless of where you’re trying to break in, the path to becoming a published writer hasn’t changed. The three main keys are an idea, a market, and the rules.

An Idea

Unfortunately, no one is going to knock on your door and say, “Hey, do you think you could write 1,200-word article about [insert topic here]?”

Until you get to the point where you are established enough that you get assignments, you must come up with your own story ideas. This could be something unique going on in your neighborhood, a solution you found to a problem that many people face, or an area of expertise you have that you’d like to share.

No one can tell you how to come up with an idea, but there are some good habits that writers I know use.

  1. Take notes. Whether it’s a snippet of overheard conversation or a quick thought that comes into your head, write it down in a small notebook (or record it on your phone).
  2. Stay informed. Understand what’s going on in your neighborhood and in the world. This will help you spot hot topics and trends that you may be able to address. Reading the newspaper is a great way to get ideas.
  3. Study the publication. If you want to write for a specific publication or website, be sure to read it thoroughly (including back issues if it’s a print publication). This can help generate ideas for topics they cover frequently (especially around the holidays), and that you can offer a fresh approach to. This also gives you an idea of their format and tone, which can help you with the query process.

A Market

You don’t want to try to sell your local paper an article about your brilliant new idea for how to potty train a child, nor do you want to try to sell a piece about a local historical event to Parents Magazine. It’s important to find a market that is the right fit for whatever it is you want to write about—which means studying the publication (as noted above).

In the case of newspapers, contact the editor of the appropriate section directly via email. While newspapers don’t actively recruit freelancers like they used to, they’re always interested in a good story. For other markets, as I noted in my previous blog post, From Reader to Writer, there is no more valuable resource than Writer’s Market for the aspiring freelancer. This offers a comprehensive list of markets, who to contact, and how to approach them. JournalismJobs.com and LinkedIn are good resources for finding jobs at a variety of outlets and with companies that hire writers for PR or for trade publications.

Also, if you do find a specific market you’re interested in, such as a magazine or website, virtually all of them have their submission guidelines available online. If you can’t find it on their sitemap, you can search (literally Google) the name of the publication or website and the words “writer’s guidelines.” I can assure you that you’ll usually find some.

The Rules

Every editor is different and the places they work for are different, but we all have one thing in common: we hate it when people don’t follow submission rules. And all publications have rules. They may want you to merely submit a query rather than a finished piece, or vice-versa; they may specifically ask that you offer credentials as text in the body of an email rather than attachments; or it might be some other, unique requirement, such as a writing test or a snail-mail submission.

If you don’t follow the rules, your submission will not be considered. Even if it’s the greatest piece of writing in the world, if you don’t follow their guidelines, they’ll delete it (or toss it in the trash), without reading it.

Along those same lines, it’s imperative to be sure your grammar, punctuation, and spelling are impeccable when you approach an editor, especially for the first time. I would not hire a writer who queried me with grammar or spelling mistakes in the email—or who spelled my name wrong since it’s clearly spelled out on our contact form.

Although this post is targeted to those who want to write articles for pay, these tips can apply to anyone who wants to do any type of writing. Generating a good idea, targeting the right market, and following the publication’s guidelines are solid first steps to making a living as a writer.

kelly_pic Kelly Burgess decided she wanted to be a writer after she read Charlotte’s Web in the first grade. She has since had thousands of articles published in magazines, newspapers, and online and mentored dozens of aspiring writers. She currently works as a senior editor for IAC Publishing Labs.

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